For decades, we have been hearing about the benefits of living a physically active lifestyle. From early research linking regular physical activity to decreased incidences of a number of ailments such cardiovascular disease, depression, and many forms of cancer (ACSM, 2006), to first lady Michelle Obama’s nationwide campaign “Let’s Move” aimed at encouraging children to move more, it is well established that being active is one of the most important things we can do for our health. But what about the times when we are not moving a lot; the long commute to work, the increasing number of hours spent at a desk, the post-work couch time devoted to relaxing? As long as we make time for physical activity each day, we get a free pass to sit in our remaining hours, correct? Unfortunately, research is beginning to show that the answer to that question is a resounding no.
What research is currently illustrating is that sitting too much is not the same as exercising too little.
The dangers of sitting started to become evident as early as the 1950s, when researchers discovered that men in physically active jobs have less cardiovascular during middle-age, and when disease is present, it is less severe, and they develop it later in life than men in physically inactive jobs (Morris & Crawford, 1958). Fast forward 60 years, and research performed by Katzmarzyk et al. (2009) shows that there is a strong association between sitting and mortality risk from all causes including cardiovascular disease.
To understand the harmful effects of sitting for an extended period of time, the concept of sedentary behavior needs to be examined. The phrase sedentary behavior comes from the Latin word 'sedere', meaning, “to sit” (Owen et al., 2009). Most individuals can sit for many hours at a time, day after day. In fact, approximately 70% of the waking day may be in a sitting behavior.
One recent study (Dunstan DW, et al., 2010) compared adults who spent less than two hours a day in front of the TV or other screen-based entertainment with those who logged more than four hours a day of recreational screen time. Those with greater screen time had:
- A nearly 50 percent increased risk of death from any cause
- About a 125 percent increased risk of events associated with cardiovascular disease, such as chest pain (angina) or heart attack (Mayo Clinic, 2012).
Hence, the idea is born that sitting is as potentially dangerous for our health as smoking!
What steps can be taken to reduce the negative health consequences of sitting for long periods of time?
- When sitting at your desk for an extended period of time, stand up and walk around the office at least every 30 minutes
- Keep a water bottle at your desk and refill it often
- Take a trek to a farther bathroom at your work-site when going to the restroom (if multiple bathrooms are an option)
- When taking phone calls, try standing up to break up the time spent sitting
- Consider installing a standing desk in your work area
- Conduct walking meeting with your colleagues whenever possible
- During long meetings or presentations, stand at the back of the room for a period of time
- Walk to a colleague's desk instead of e-mailing or calling them
1ACSM. (2006). ACSM's Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription (7th ed.). Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins
2 Morris, J.N. and Crawford, M.D. (1958). Coronary heart disease and physical activity of work: Evidence of a national necropsy survey. British Medical Journal, December 20, pp. 1486-1496
3 Katzmarzyk, P.T., Church, T.S., Craig, C.L., and Bouchard, C. (2009). Sitting time and mortality from all causes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 41(5), pp. 998-1005.
4Owen, N., Bauman, A. and Brown, W. (2009). Too much sitting: a novel and important predictor of chronic disease risk? British Journal of Sports Medicine, 43(2), pp. 81-83.
5 Dunstan DW, et al. Television viewing time and mortality: The Australian Diabetes, Obesity and Lifestyle Study (AusDiab). Circulation. 2010;121:384
6 Viva Healthy Cosmetic (2014). Overcome the Dangers of Sitting. Retrieved from http://www.vivahealthycosmetic.com/2013/09/17/danger-of-sitting/
7 Sitting risks: How harmful is too much sitting? Mayo Clinic. (2012, June). Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-living/adult-health/expert-answers/sitting/faq-20058005